Reflections on Earth Day…

My very first recollection of Earth Day is from my 7th grade year, back on Academy St. at Cary Junior High, which is now The Cary Arts Center. I was fortunate to have not only an environmental activist as a teacher, but a proud anti-war activist. It was in that 7th grade class, that I learned of the My Lai Massacre. My teacher brought a friend who had served in Vietnam to talk to us about the ongoing war, and we watched a film of another soldier’s testimony about the massacre. I still vividly remember one of the atrocities being told by a crying participant and witness.

This story and experience awakened a civic duty in me- the foundation of my local activism today. Simultaneously, the first Annual Earth Day was being celebrated. I recognized this as a real chance to make a difference. I pondered, “How can a 13-year-old boy make a difference?” I landed on air pollution as my focus. I then researched the Wake County Ordinance on burning leaves with material my teacher provided to me. She was “recruiting” an army to make a stand in the war on pollution. I had an ecology flag stitched on my jean jacket. I drew ecology flags on all my notebooks and book covers. 

To my parents’ shock and dismay, I received a letter from the county, warning my neighbors about not following the leaf burning ordinance. Why is that letter stamped indelibly in my mind as that single atrocity story from the My Lai Massacre? Why were my parents upset? Because at the bottom of the letter, which discussed the anonymous tip that they were illegally burning, was this short line:

cc: Ken George

My neighbors, 4 houses down on Jones Franklin Rd. knew who Ken George was. I NEVER tried to sell any fund-raising items from school at that house EVER again!

What began with that first annual Earth Day stamped in my memory, has evolved into a life advocating for conservation. Back then we were told the smoke and pollution would hide the sunlight, causing the earth to cool. Some said we were headed for another ice age. Others, less well known, were making predictions about greenhouse gas as early as 1968. We watched films in school about filthy rivers with floating dead fish, another image that is hard to forget. Having a science kit with a solar panel that could measure current increase when placed in the sun was informative. As a 4-H’er, I took my electric project and demonstration to the state competition and won with both. 

My project and success helped broaden my thoughts of pollution from just burning leaves to wasting electricity, causing more pollution. I changed all the bulbs in my parents’ house from 100-watt and 60-watt down to 40-watt bulbs. I thought my parents would be proud of the money I was saving them and how environmentally focused their son was. What I didn’t realize was that my young eyes could read with the light of a 40-watt bulb, but mom and dad couldn’t! (I changed most of them back, but managed to get a few reduced from 100 to 75.)

Raising a family of six requires some management skills. Ask my children about how dad would send them back to cut the lights off in their room. Ask them about how I made them go through the recycling and pull out the wrong items- I posted the Town of Cary guide by the back door. I’m not sure how much of a difference it made, but I was just as determined as my little 7th grade self. I still went through the can before I rolled it to the street to make sure no plastic bags or non-recyclable items were in there- running water while you brush your teeth is a no-no! These were all money and environment saving actions. We talked about this when I went all in on CFL bulbs, only to bag them up and take them to the recycling center at Lowes and replace them with LED bulbs later. These were the middle years, the transition from being a teenager concerned about the environment, to being a dad, trying to instill the values in my children that my 7th grade teacher had done for me. 

My service on the council for four years attests to my life convictions about the environment. I toured our recycling vendor’s facility with staff and wrote a Cary Matters program on getting the right materials in the recycling can. Cary pays more to recycle waste than to bury it in a landfill… That’s the law of supply and demand. Too much recycled material and not enough market for it. But does it really cost more in the long run? The sooner the nearby landfill is at capacity, the sooner the trucks will have to haul the trash further away. That costs money in operating the trucks as well as time for employees to drive there. The single stream recycler is an easier trip for our trucks. Therefore, even though it costs more per pound, we are protecting the environment and saving taxpayer future dollars at the same time.

Recycling is not just a town responsibility. All the town can do is provide you a brown trash can. It’s up to you, the citizen, to use it and use it properly. Do you realize that by putting plastic bags which “gum up the works” in the conveyor and recycling center, you risk them scooping up the entire truckload of 95% good, recycled material and hauling it to the landfill after all? Their equipment cannot handle the plastic bags. They can ruin the conveyor system and take it offline for hours. This makes it a town responsibility to “inform” and the citizen’s responsibility to “conform” to the recycling policies to help conserve precious resources.

LED lighting, you may love it, you may hate it. I love it. The town loves it and years ago made the decision to spend the money to upgrade the streetlights to save the environment and taxpayer money in the long run with electricity savings. I’ve been a strong proponent of energy saving steps for the town. I proposed in a work session that the library parking deck paid for by the town, should have solar panels on top, to provide electricity to light the deck at night. It was early in 2016 that I made this proposal, but it died right there at the work session, with no one seconding the idea or extending the discussion. It came up again later when the plans were shown. I, again, asked why the McDonalds at Crossroads could have solar panels to provide shade for parking as well as electricity but the Town of Cary couldn’t do the same for the parking deck? If you’ve been to the library and seen the top of the parking deck, you’ll notice that the idea went nowhere. Earth Day is a good day to begin to ask these questions of your representatives. Ask for action!

This is the first of a series of blogs that will highlight my positions on the environment and our responsibility. We’ll be discussing recycling, solar energy, stormwater, arboretums, the tree canopy, and more. We’ll discuss coordinated volunteer efforts to help HOA’s and citizens who want to make a difference, who have that sense of responsibility for their environment, their neighborhood, their town. We need neighborhoods with organization at the street and block level to make Cary green and sustainable for our grandchildren and future generations to come. We need to provide expert advice from volunteers and town employees- and we need to listen to their expertise and implement their suggestions. Join our team and movement! Make this a reality, not just a campaign issue.

Earth Day 51 years ago… Let’s make progress so that on Earth Day’s 100th anniversary, Cary residents can look back and be proud of the progress we made in this decade. Get on board with us!

-Ken